Tag Archives: Penang

My Mum’s Penang Loh Bak

My mum’s Penang loh-bak – Chinese five spice pork rolls

It’s actually my granddad’s recipe, which my grandmother used to cook with my mother, but this was the first time I had ever made these delicious strips of pork, marinated in Chinese five-spices, rolled in beancurd skin and then deep fried. Served with sliced fresh cucumber and chilli sauce these tasty, crispy morsels are totally more-ish.

Loh bak is a very traditional Penang Nonya dish and as with most of these types of dishes, the actual cooking is minimal – it’s all in the preparation.

As with a lot of traditional Nonya recipes, my mum cooks like my grandmother – everything is to taste, and I was so enjoying spending time with her in the kitchen that we both forgot to even try to guesstimate the quantity of the ingredients. Ah well, it just gives me more reason to do this again with her in the future and make sure this recipe is recorded for posterity.



Penang Feasting

Apom balik – Crispy Indian pancakes

My mother is from Penang, and although we migrated to Sydney when I was just four years old, my family still has strong roots there. Over the years though, my visits have tapered off and the Penang I know has become a memory – rapid urbanisation has fundamentally changed the city so much I don’t recognise it any more. The city has fortunately been declared UNESCO protected so the the city has been cleaned up, but the traffic is still congested, which makes getting around to the best places to eat that little bit more difficult.

Penang has long been lauded as having the best food in Malaysia – particular hawker food. It’s hard to explain why – the best I can give (based on a thoughtful discussion with a fellow Penang-ite in Singapore) is that each hawker is his/her own artist in the way they prepare and cook their dishes, achieving a distinct character, so much so that a certain dish does not taste the same if it’s been cooked by the owners son even when all other variables are constant.

Malaysians in general are quite obsessive about eating the best food and will often drive for an hour to get to “the best [insert food here]” – chicken rice, crab, fried noodles – you name it. Some have become so famous that there are often lengthy queues, which, in the blistering Penang heat, is something even I am not willing to do.

Penang curry noodles

When we were recently in Penang, we stayed close to a massive hawker centre called Supertanker. It’s a bewildering, bustling, noisy, crowded, mass of hungry people in for a quick bite – this I guess is the Malaysian equivalent of a fast food court. It’s quite difficult to explain the whole experience. There are maybe 200 tables and on the perimeter of the area are tiny little food stalls that usually sell just one or two types of dishes – fish soup, Penang char kuay teow, congee, drinks etc. You queue and order your food, pay the hawker, gesture in the direction of where you are sitting, and somehow your dish manages to find you just a few minutes later. They seem to have an amazing capacity to remember who ordered what.

The pace that these hawkers prepare the food is astounding. They are literally human machines – when you’re only charging the equivalent of US$1 for a bowl of noodles, turnover is critical, and these hawkers work hard and fast to feed the masses.

It’s open air but with plenty of fans and I was so happy to enjoy a few of my old favourite that I haven’t had for possibly over ten years. It’s amazing how smells and sounds and tastes can bring back fond memories.

Two dishes I am thrilled to have eaten: curry noodles and “apom balik”. The curry noodles are a Malaysian speciality. I guess the most easy way to describe it is as a laksa, but here, they somehow manage to extract the flavour of the coconut but with none of the thick creamy consistency of some laksas I’ve had outside of Malaysia. The broth is rich yet almost white in colour and the dish comes with a generous spoon of chilli sambal, tofu, squid, fresh cockles and most importantly, cubes of pig’s blood. Now I know that might sound horrifying to many of you, but I just love the squidgy, squeaky, springy texture of these and you can’t get this easily at all outside of Malaysia. It adds a richness to the entire dish that I just love.

The second dish is probably much more palatable – it’s called apom balik, and Indian speciality, essentially a pancake batter that’s cooked in a mini-wok, so that the edges are thin and crispy and crepe-like, with a small “bump” of lightly cooked spongy batter in the middle. Sometimes they are filled with a mixture of sugar and crushed peanuts which are also delicious but I think the simplicity of the plain ones appeal to me (perhaps because I can justify eating more?).

With my gran passing away I’m not sure I will have as many opportunities to sample the amazing food in Penang. But I can take the wonderful memories of the food with me and they come attached with the even more wonderful memories of enjoying it with her.


Penang Road Cafe

Char kway teow 

My mum’s back  in Singapore, and even though she is stopping over to visit en route to Penang, she still nodded enthusiastically when I told her that I had read a review of Penang Road Cafe and would like check it out with her.  It seems that the fate of every person from Penang is the endless pursuit of authentic Penang fare, no matter where they are.

As you enter the cafe, you are enveloped by the smell of spices and wok hei. Wok hei, literally translated is “wok air” and it is the flavour, tastes and “essence” that you get from frying your food in a very hot wok.  It’s a term that is often used to describe dishes like fried flat rice noodles (char kway teow) and fried noodle enthusiasts often rank the dishes according to this, as it reflects on the expertise of the chef and also the authenticity of the food.

There is a very limited menu, which makes deciding very easy, and to me, makes me think that they specialise in a few dishes, and (hopefully) do them well. And they sure do, here.

Penang hokkien mee

As a starter we ordered loh bak – strips of pork, marinated in chinese five spices, mixed with onion and water chestnuts and then rolled in tofu skin and deep fried. I can only think of why I have no photo of this is because it was so delicious that I was too busy eating it ! Melt in your mouth crispy on the outside, juicy and sweet inside, all it was missing was the thick dipping sauce that I am used to it being served with. At Penang Road Cafe, they serve it with a simple chilli and ginger sauce, which adds a nice heat to the dish.

The char kway teow – a classic Penang dish of wok-fried thick flat rice noodles with bean sprouts, prawns, chives, egg and chinese sausage and cockles – came next. Definitely where the wok hei aroma came from, with the noodles charred and crispy edged and the overall dish permeated with a delicious smoky flavour.  We ordered the special, which came with more prawns and cockles and also crab meat.  Not sure if the addition of crab meat worked here – if it ain’t broke…This dish is one of the standards of which many people rate entire restaurants/cafes just because anyone can fry noodles, but only a few can do them like this, and do them well.

The third dish that we ordered was the Penang Hokkien mee – rice vermicelli and yellow noodles served in a rich pork and prawn broth. Again, this is one of those dishes that is very popular and quite difficult to find where the stock is not “boosted” with sugar and MSG, leaving you thirsty for hours after eating it.  The hokkien mee at Penang Road Cafe was great – you get a mouthful of broth that is both savoury and sweet from hours of slow cooking the pork bones and prawns.

We would be so happy to go back there again to work through the menu – only so that we can run out of dishes and start at the beginning again !

Penang Road Cafe
275 Thomson Road
#01-08, Novena Ville
Tel: 62563218, 97862079

11.30am to 2.30pm
5.45pm to 9.15pm
Closed Mondays


Penang buffet at Copthorne Kings Hotel

Nasi lemak – coconut rice with chilli anchovies and peanuts

Whenever my parents visit me in Singapore, there’s always a line-up of peranakan food.  My grandmother was nonya, and my mother craves the food she grew up with in Penang.  There are a handful of Malaysian restaurants in Sydney, but there isn’t the demand for Sydney to import a few of the spices and herbs that you need to make it authentically Penang cuisine.

Today I took them to the Kings Hotel where there is a Penang buffet – so not just Malaysian, which encompasses Malay, nonya, maybe even Indian – this is pure nonya food.  And what a spread it is.  It’s not the most glamourous places to eat – the hotel looks a bit dated from the newer hotels, but the food is so good, I visibly watched my mum eat herself into a stupor.

The variety on offer is huge and the buffet-style means you can sample a little of everything.

chee cheong fan

I started with chee cheong fan, steamed rice rolls, topped with a simple drizzle of sesame oil, hoisin sauce and a sprinkle of sesame seeds.  The rice rolls were thin and slipped easily down your throat.  Deliciously simple. Simply delicious.

Penang otak – steamed golden snapper in coconut custard

This was followed by nonya otak.  Otak is fish with herbs in a curried coconut broth that is steamed in a banana leaf.  It’s been so long since I’ve had otak this way – in Singapore it’s barbequed and the end result is a lot more fishcake-like rather than custard in texture.  When it’s steamed, it turns out as a delicate piece of heaven.

Penang asam laksa

There was also Penang laksa available.  Again, this differs from the more popular laksa that is made with curry and coconut cream, with the stock made from mackerel and tamarind, so it is clear(ish) and has a distinguishing sour taste.  The fish is first poached and then flaked and the stock includes lemongrass, galangal, chilli, pineapple, mint, thinly sliced onion, sweet prawn paste and the pink bud of the ginger flower.  It’s one dish that the very mention of which can make my sister salivate on demand and very rare to find.  Needless to say that was a favourite on our table.

Selection of nonya kueh

Too many other dishes followed, including Penang Hokkien mee soup, which was topped off with fried bits of pork lard (sounds awful, tastes wonderful), acar, a salad of cucumber, carrots and cabbage pickled in aromatic spices and vinegar and then tossed in crushed peanuts and of course nonya kueh, traditional nonya dessert cakes, made authentically and made with the perfect balance of sweet and savoury.  A perfect way to end a perfect afternoon of nonya delights.

All in all, highly recommended for hard-core Peranakan devotees.

Copthorne King’s Hotel Singapore
Princess Terrace Cafe
403 Havelock Road
Singapore
Tel: 65 6733 0011


Shhhh…happy new year

Was our phrase at midnight on new year’s eve this year.  Both D and I said goodbye to the last decade and hello to the new, in bed, thinking the other was asleep and not wanting to wake each other up to open the bottle of champagne we had bought to celebrate.  Gotta love getting sick on holidays.

Ah, Penang.  I go there not for anything other than my granny lives there and it was nice to have a holiday together with my family, and see four generations together.

I know people always bang on about how amazing the food is in Penang, but to be totally honest, unless you are willing to travel for miles and often ages due to traffic, in that blistering heat, I’d rather find food close by.  And I guess staying at Batu Ferringhi, the touristy part of Penang, you’re not going to get great authentic food easily.

Our first night of eating was at a nearby hawker centre which truly was average.  We were hungry and indecisive, so we pretty much ordered at least one dish from every stall.  The one standout was the chilli stingray, which came not smothered in a rich red sambal, that we are more used to from Singapore, but a thinner, less processed version of limejuice, chilli, sambal belachan, sugar, onions and garlic.  It was knock-your-socks off hot, but absolutely delicious.

On our last night, we went with my uncle and his family to a restaurant further up the hill, called “Restoran End of the World”, named, I assume, because it’s pretty much at the tip of Telok Bahang, and not because eating there will be the beginning of the apocalypse.  It was essentially a koptiam specialising in seafood (it is located near a fishing village), and boy did we order (and eat!) a lot of that.

After a short wait, we started off with fried rice and fried noodles, and then the food just kept coming.  Crisply battered calamari, pipis and “chu chu”, a strange conical seasnail (which I have to admit I only eat because it reminds me of eating it when I was very young), mantis shrimp, oyster omelette, cereal prawns and the two absolute standouts, a fried fish “ikan hantu” covered in that same chilli stingray sauce and simply steamed local mud crab.

The ikan hantu (which means devil fish because it looks pretty mean and ugly) was delicate and tender and was partnered so well with the sweet chilli sauce.  At the other end of the spectrum, steaming the crab did the crab complete justice – nothing at all distracted from the incredibly sweet flesh of the crab.

I’m sure Penang is still full of wonderful local delights, but for me, the need to travel to the padang just to eat the Penang laksa under that sweaty, heat-containing “roof” is not really a big puller for me.  I’m sure my relatives who live there would vehemently disagree with me – everything is “the best” in Penang to them – but for me…maybe not so much.